A Conversation with Tom Reiss
Who was Lev Nussimbaum? What was he really like?
At his height he was a kind of jazz age/Weimar media star, a professional "Orientalist" who liked to play up his exotic childhood, and was part of the
café society that included people like Walter Benjamin and also the brilliant
Russian exiles, like the Nabokovs and the Pasternaks. It was during the whole "Cabaret" period in Berlin, but it was much much wilder and stranger than it
was even presented in that film. But what was amazing to me was that while most
Jews in the 20's and 30's tried as hard as they could to assimilate, Lev did
everything he could to make himself stand out. In the cafes of Berlin and Vienna
he was sporting flowing robes and a turban, and the same thing on his book
jackets. And he continued this wild career into the Nazi era, at times confusing
the Nazis so much that he had Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry writing to defend
him against another Nazi agency that wanted to persecute him as a Jew. He then
went to Italy where he became close to Mussolini's inner circle, cultivating a
group that pushed a liberal, non-racist form of Fascism. He was either
incredibly brave or incredibly suicidal, maybe a bit of both.
In an era when most Jews were trying to run away from fascism, what do
you think drove him to work his way back to the heart of fascist Europe, when he
had many chances to escape?
In some ways, the world Lev grew up in resembles the one we may be
facing now. The global order that had held for many decades was crumbling. It
was startling for me to realize how much terrorism was a fact of life when Lev
was growing up, even more than it is now. In a city like Baku, under the
influence of pre-revolutionary Russia, you had dozens of terrorist groups at
workbombing buildings, kidnapping people. Terrorism was in fact in his own
house in a bizarre way, because it would turn out that his mother was secretly
using her husband's money to fund Stalin and the other Bolsheviks. So for the
rest of his life, Islam and some of the wilder politics he would get into were
his refuge from all that.
All his Orientalist dreams and disguises were ways of making sense of and
escaping the violencethe Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire,
World War I. He came to see Islam as the ultimate Third Way between bloody
ideologies like Communism and Nazism, and the bloodless consumer culture of
America (symbolized by his father-in-law, a Czech shoe millionaire who became a
Hollywood producer). He converted to Islam when he was 18, and to him it was a
faith of languorous government and ethnic diversity, represented by a
romanticized view of his native Caucasus and even more so by his time spent in
the last gasps of Ottoman Constantinople. It's bizarre in today's climate to
think of the call to Jihad as an appeal for tolerance and a counterweight to
violent extremism, but that is exactly how Lev saw it.
In uncovering the story of a forgotten man, you also uncovered a great
deal of forgotten history. What are some of the surprises you found?
Some of the American connections to Hitler and Mussolini are bizarre.
For example, Hitler's first press secretary Putzi Hanfstangl turns out to have
been a Harvard man, class of '04, who played in the college band. In his
memoirs, he describes how Hitler would go wild with excitement when Putzi played
the football marches and recounted how the hysteria the pep rallies could whip
up in the stadiumFight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight! Later Putzi
turned against Nazism and helped Roosevelt, but he always claimed that that was
where the inspiration for the "Sieg Heil!" chants and the mass Nazi
rallies came fromthe Harvard-Yale games.
But for me personally, it was fascinating to discover that for almost a whole
century before the founding of the State of Israel, there was this strong
identification felt by many Jews in Europe for Muslims and the Islamic East in
general. Many of the early Zionists felt a deep kinship for their "oriental
cousins" the Arabs, who, as Disraeli famously put it, were "merely Jews on
horseback." There was this idea that the return of the Jewsnot only to
Palestine but to the broader Muslim world in generalwould bring on a kind of
modern Jewish-Muslim symbiosis. The reason so many German-Jewish synagogues
built in the 19th century were "Moorish" in style was because of this dream
of pan-oriental unitythis idea of symbiosis. But you also had all these
Jewish experts in Arabic translating the Koran and promoting Muslim revival.
I was having lunch with a Pakistani newspaper editor while working on all this
and, by way of making a point about liberal, educated Islam in South Asia, he
recommended to me the greatest English translation of the Koran, by Muhammad
Asad. I believe I gave the man the shock of his American visit when I told him
that the great Muslim scholar and statesman he knew as "Muhammad Asad" was
in fact born Leopold Weiss and was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who converted to
Islam on a trip to Arabia in the 1920s. "If you were to publish that in
Pakistan," the editor said, "about the man whom every educated Pakistani
considers the greatest Koran translator, you would start riots." There are
many characters like that that I write about in The Orientalist.
It's a whole side to Orientalism that people have no understanding of largely
because the late Edward Said painted such a powerful version of a different idea
in everyone's minds. In fact, in many ways the Jewish orientalists were every
bit as important or more than the French or English orientalists he focused
onand unlike gentile European orientalists, the Jewish orientalists weren't
trying to discover the exotic other in the mysterious East, they were trying to
What drew you to this story?
Many members of my family, of my grandparents' generation, were
German-speaking Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. After college I lived in Germany
for a while and wrote some articles about the phenomenon of neo-Nazism, but when
I was growing up, I mainly had fantasies about going back in time and outwitting
the real Nazis. From the moment I first discovered Levwhen I went to Baku,
Azerbaijan, in 1998it seemed like I had found a character I had been waiting
my whole life to meet. He had the temperament and, for a while anyway, the luck
to live out that fantasy.
How did you find Lev Nussimbaum in the first place?
I had gone to Baku to write a travel article about the new oil boom on
the Caspian Sea. But what really got me interested was what I'd heard about
the city itselflike 19th-century Paris dropped into the desert or something,
with old casinos, opera houses, elegant mansions, all in a state of gothic
decay. Azeris, I discovered, consider their countrywhich borders Iran and
Dagestanto be part of Europe. And from the moment I got to Baku, I found it
somehow deeply poignant what a century of war and revolution had destroyed. The
city is half out of the Arabian nights, with medieval walls and minarets, but it
also does kind of feel like Paris, perhaps combined with Napleswith very
I basically found Lev because there were no guidebooks to BakuAzerbaijan was
one of only two or three countries in the world at the time that had absolutely
no guide in English. So the main book Westerners visiting Baku seemed to read
was a 75-year-old novel, called Ali and Nino. I started asking around
about the author and found out that no one knew who it was, but everyone seemed
to have a passionate opinion. The name on the cover of the book was "Kurban
Said"who was supposedly an Austrian baroness in real life, or maybe an
Azeri poet who died in the gulags. By the end of my stay I had to get to the
bottom of the mystery.
Tell us about your journey.
In trying to reconstruct Lev's life I also learned a lot about the
worlds he traveled infascist intellectuals, European pan-Islamists, and
revolutionary terrorists (including Stalin, who lived in Baku when he was
young). The most fun part of the book for me was describing some the characters
I metthe Austrian Baroness, who would only talk to me in the middle of the
night, when she wasn't working on a rock opera, in her freezing castle, in the
middle of winter!
two ancient sisters in Baku, who had spent every summer
with their mother in Baden-Baden until WWI and the Russian Revolution, and never
went back again; and most crucially, a fierce old Austrian publisher with four
passports stamped "Aryan" and Lev's deathbed notebooks in her closet,
which she gave to me. I realized how I was extremely lucky that I had learned
fluent German in my 20's; I don't think I could really have gotten to know
these people if I had had to have an interpreter.
What happened to Lev's deathbed notebooks?
I don't know where they will end up. I hope that there will be new
interest in his work, and that this last "Kurban Said" book, in many ways
the most interesting onea hybrid novel/memoirwill finally be published.
I've put the notebooks themselves in a safe deposit box. I don't know where
they should go. Lev has no heirs. And they shouldn't go back to the Aryanizer
of his publisher which is what the lady in Vienna was. I'm grateful she
let me read the notebooks, but at the same time she absolutely couldn't face
the fact of what had become of the Jews who rightfully owned the company, never
mind her Jewish authors, "who left without saying a word," as she put it to
me, remembering 1938, "leaving me to take care of their affairs."
So I hope some museum or library will start a collection of Lev's manuscripts
and will protect them and display them. They are an incredible artifactin a
way they sum up the most important thing about Lev to me, which was the way he
responded to the face of evil closing in around him and kept himself alive
You seem to have resurrected Lev's life from oblivion. Why do you
think you were able to solve the puzzle of his life after it had remained a
totally confusing mystery for so long?
I don't think I've solved the puzzle of Lev NussimbaumI think
that would be impossible, for in some way the man is just a Gordian knot of
contradictionsbut I do think I have resurrected him from oblivion and also
resurrected his legacy from others who wanted to claim it for their own. An old
Indian man who helped me on the project insisted that I'd been reincarnated to
save Lev's life, to bring him back from the void. I don't know about that,
but I do think it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime confluences of biographer
and subject. I'd come along at exactly the right timethe last possible
moment. It was as though all these ancient peoplethese ancient women,
mostlyhad been waiting for decades for me to find them, so they could pull
out a ragged photo album, a box of love letters not opened since 1952, or a
cluster of deathbed notebooks. The widow of one of Lev's school friends
produced a photo album that had survived a concentration camp and an escape
through the Pyrenees, and it was filled with candid photos of Lev in his
orientalist costume in 1920s Berlin.
Often I arrived just in time to meet someoneif I'd come a year later it
would have been too late. In England, I found the woman who'd discovered Ali
and Nino in a postwar Berlin bookstall and done the first translation of it
into English in the 1960's. But she was in the hospital, having just had two
strokes, and she was unable to communicate with anyone because she'd lost her
power of speech. I showed up at the hospital, which was an open ward, like
something out of Dickens' Englandwhere she was driving everyone crazy,
howling all the time because she couldn't express herself
but then I tried
talking to her in German. And it turned out that somehow, the strokes had
knocked out her English, her main language for almost fifty years, but she
hadn't lost her first language, German. She was shocked that she could answer
me that way, and talking to her I found out that she'd changed her identity
herselfshe'd been a stage dancer in the Third Reich with an entirely
Part of writing this book felt like detective work 101, just following every
lead, most of them being dead-ends since I'm dragging up a case that was
closed a half a century ago. But every now and then I would have a breakthrough,
and it just kept happening.